At the turn of the 20th century, Japan experienced a boom in samurai films to coincide with their emerging fiction cinema. Some of the country’s earliest cinematic output includes action-oriented swordplay films known in the native tongue as chanbara – a sub-genre of jidaigeki (period dramas) predominantly set during the Edo period from 1603 to 1868 before the Meiji Restoration commenced. Chanbara movies remained popular throughout the ’50s and the ’60s as the country’s postwar years saw some of its most acclaimed cinematic output released, including Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954), Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), Yōjinbō (Yojimbo, 1961), and Dai-bosatsu tôge (The Sword of Doom, 1966). Like all genres, chanbara cinema has come in various iterations throughout the years; Seven Samurai is a prime example of the historical epics where heroic warriors embody the virtuous ideals commonly associated with samurai, whereas The Sword of Doom adopts a more cynical mindset and depicts the main samurai character as a violent sociopath. As pop culture entered the ’70s and ’80s, we saw artists experiment further with the genre. A prime example is the Kozure Ōkami (Lone Wolf and Cub) manga from 1970, and subsequent film series, which embraced the more gruesome elements of samurai life through its gore-filled realization of Tokugawa era Japan. It would be ignorant to suggest that samurai pop culture is identical, though it has helped spread a widespread interpretation that they were virtuous, sword-wielding warriors rooted in bushido principles.
Even though samurai warriors are well-documented figures in Japanese history, their portrayal in pop culture has given them a mythical aura that’s often romanticized. When we think of samurai, we tend to imagine warriors who abide by a strict code of moral ethics known as bushido – chivalry, rectitude, courage, benevolence, politeness, sincerity, honesty, honor, loyalty and self-control. Whether serving as loyal servants of their shoguns, lords or emperors, or wandering the lands exacting justice as nomadic rōnin, for the most part, the samurai is an elite figure who is skilled in battle and possesses strong, admirable virtues emblematic of national heritage and cultural ideals, which Sharp highlights as “traditions of valor, loyalty, and self-sacrifice[.]’’ (45). It is true that many samurais did adhere to bushido ethics and this code has informed the Japanese warrior’s way since, but their image as Knights of the Roundtable or solitary justice crusaders is a romantic notion created through age-old stories and pop culture. In fact, the samurai bears similarities the mythical cowboy of the American frontier during the 18th and 19th centuries as both figures have garnered special significance and legend through their depictions in folktales, literature, cinema, and other mediums of entertainment in their respective cultures. While some samurai were indeed katana-wielding warrior poets with a strict ethical code – and the historic framework in which they operated in was dangerous – the truth is that their legend was created through the social imagination. But, over time, the mythologized samurai became a metaphor for strength, national heritage, and pride. As Mason states, “The Japanese warrior’s powerful hold on the social imagination persists despite the vast and growing temporal, political, and cultural distance between the period of samurais and today.’’ (1).
One of the key texts in establishing samurai as honorable mythologised warriors was Inazo Nitobe’s, Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1900). The concept of bushido dates back to the 17th century, but Nitobe’s book established the term and introduced it to the national consciousness in the 20th century. (Not to mention help create Western misconceptions of what samurai were like). The book has been dismissed by many as propaganda which sought only to present a certain image of Japan to the West by applying Christian ideals to Japanese philosophy. However, it was also a useful propaganda tool for the Japanese government’s military efforts during World War II.
Samurai culture and World War II are both prime examples of Japan’s disturbing history with suicide; seppuku (ritual suicide) was a samurai tradition, usually conducted to avoid being killed by an enemy or when a dishonor had been committed. During World War II, Japanese Kamikaze pilots would obliterate the enemy by flying their jets straight into targets at the expense of their own lives. Bushido has adopted a litany of interpretations; ranging from honorable cultural ideals which make up the nation’s proud identity to the self-destructive tendencies reflective of her suicidal tendencies and war crimes. But, when it comes to pop culture, bushido is often the driving force which inspires the almighty, legendary samurai warriors to stand up to oppressive systems – and who provide us, the viewer, with hours of escapism and entertainment which sometimes provide catharsis to help deal with the oppressive regimes in our own world.
Takashi’s Miike’s Jûsan-nin no shikaku (13 Assassins, 2010) portrays samurai in their romantic iteration, and the film is an exhilarating historical epic about delivering justice. Based on Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 film of the same name, 13 Assassins tells the story of a group of 12 samurais and a hunter (Yusuke Iseya) in 1844 as they embark on a suicide mission to kill the sadistic warlord, Matsudaira Naritsugu (Gorō Inagaki), before his appointment to the Shogunate Council. Naritsugu is a bastard; for amusement, he tortures and slaughters his temple servants and gets away with it because the Shogun is his brother. Should he ascend the political ranks, there’s no telling how far his atrocities would go. Therefore, Sir Doi Toshitsura (Mikijirō Hira), the Shogun’s Justice, enlists honorable samurai, Shimada Shinzaemon (Kōji Yakusho), to carry out the assassination. But when Naritsugu’s accomplices learn of the plot to kill Naritsugu, the uphill battle becomes mountainous as the 13 strong must cut their way through an army, hell bent on protecting their master, to get to their target.
The original 13 Assassins and Miike’s remake are part of a long lineage of Japanese films inspired by the tale of the 47 Ronin, or Chūshingura (Treasury of the Long Retainers), either directly or indirectly. Like samurai themselves, Chūshingura is a prime example of how pop culture has romanticized real historic figures, and the tale has inspired countless others involving brave samurai standing up to evildoers which have been commonplace in literature, theater cinema, and television. As the story of Chūshingura goes, the events took place in 1701 when daimyō of the Akō Domain, Asano Naganori, attacked one of the Shogun’s officials, Kira Yoshinaka. As punishment for his misconduct, he was ordered to commit suicide, to which he obliged. However, Naganori was also a respected leader of 47 ronin who banded together to kill Kira and several of his samurai guards. To commemorate their master, the ronin then cut off Yoshinaka’s head and delivered it to the daimyō’s grave. However, like their master before them, they were ordered to commit suicide for their transgressions, to which they also obliged, only to be immortalized in Japanese storytelling forever. In both versions of 13 Assassins, proceedings feature a seppuku ritual that brings attention to a sadistic lord’s cruelty, which later instigates a rebellion. While neither film is a direct retelling of Chūshingura, its influence is evident.
Though 13 Assassins does draw upon the iconic samurai adventure tales perfected by the likes of Akira Kurosawa, the film does contain themes prominent in some of Miike’s other works; most notably the exploration of screen violence. The violence in 13 Assassins is at times fun and heightens the rush of the grand scale battle sequences; however, there are moments where it’s disturbing and far from exhilarating, like during a scene where the limbless body of a female servant is revealed. Tom Mes compares the variations of violence in 13 Assassins to the director’s 2001 film, Koroshiya 1 (Ichi the Killer), highlighting how “Both films investigate the diverse uses and impacts of screen violence: 13 Assassins veers from enraging to harrowing to funny to exciting, and evokes memories of popular cinema as well as of concentration camps (in the shot of an emaciated, limbless, speechless young woman).” (Film Comment). Like Ichi the Killer, the violence against women in 13 Assassins is presented brutally and all “fun” aspects are removed completely in those instances.
Like the traditional American Western, samurai films take place before the invasion of the modern world, and 13 Assassins is set in the latter days of Tokugawa, 24 years before the Meiji Restoration modernized the nation by implementing bureaucratic government and introducing technological advancement. They are the last warrior vestiges of a historic age which lends itself to cinema perfectly. Unpredictability is one of Miike’s most appealing traits as a filmmaker (although he’s no stranger to keeping it simple either), but here he’s content to play to conventions and pay homage to the romantic notion of the samurai by delivering a rip-roaring chanbara action-opus. Like Seven Samurai, Miike’s film was made with Western crossover ambitions in mind and bears all the hallmarks of an old-school, man-on-a-mission adventure which culminates in a memorable battle. While it honors a type of cinema that’s inherently Japanese, 13 Assassins is arguably one of Miike’s most easily-digestible efforts for universal audiences.
The mythic samurai might not be historically accurate representations of Japan’s ancient warriors, but they still make for some of pop culture’s most fascinating characters all the same, and 13 Assassins is a fitting tribute to their romanticized legacy. On one hand, Miike delivers a crowd pleaser that delivers all you could ask for from a heroic samurai tale. On the other, he peppers the film with enough of his own sensibilities to make it a memorable entry in a genre that’s been a part of Japanese cinema since its formative years. As far as bloody battle epics go, they don’t come much better than this.
Mason, M, Michele. “Empowering the Would-Be Warrior.’’ Recreating Japanese Men, edited by Sabine Fruhstuck. University of California Press, 2011. Pp. 1
Mes, Tom. “Review: 13 Assassins.’’ Film Comment, 2011 https://www.filmcomment.com/article/13-assassins-review/ Accessed: May 5, 2017
Sharp, Jasper. History Dictionary of Japanese Cinema. Scarecrow Press, 2011. Pp. 45